Are open source solutions set to take the high ground in the telecoms industry?

October 2017 – With open source solutions rapidly growing across the telecoms industry, we’re seeing a major shift with the migration from voice and data services to an encompassing set of networking tools. While open source software may still be a new model for the industry, we’re seeing operators moving away from traditional, proprietary-based hardware and software systems, with open source solutions now viewed as a key enabler of transformation and innovation. Open source software has shaken up and disrupted the computing industry, and it now looks set to do the same for telecoms. The argument remains as to whether this is for better or worse, and how the industry will develop.

While open source solutions do have clear advantages, allowing third-party deployment without having to solely manage or develop the software, challenges still remain. For example, if there’s a bug that causes reliability problems or a crash in the network, how long does it take to fix the bug and who’s accountable for it? Until such industry issues are properly addressed, it seems that open source solutions will not be taking the high ground in the industry anytime soon.

How are telecoms operators using open source software today?

Open source solutions have gained traction over the years, as operators witness the benefits these solutions bring. We’re told by analysts and media experts alike that Cloud-centric solutions, for example, can transform businesses, improving efficiency and revenue. Ingrained within this model is a competitive driving force that is fuelling the shift to open source solutions. Yet for this shift to successfully take place, operators themselves need to take the lead and encourage transformation and collaboration across the industry. While some operators are beginning to move away from proprietary solutions and towards extended collaborative open solutions, there’s a lot more work to be done in propelling integrated open source software. In order for vendors to successfully achieve this, they need to overcome the inherent challenges that lie ahead.

The advantages and disadvantages of using open source solutions

In broad terms, open source solutions have many benefits, there are fewer operational issues and generally speaking, open source solutions are less expensive than traditional software systems. Both of which result in higher capital efficiency and scalability on demand. Yet, vendors that are still using proprietary solutions, i.e. in-house hardware and software systems, pride themselves on having differentiated products and services that enable them to compete effectively with over-the-top (OTT) players. Thus, a more entrepreneurial and creative approach is taken when leveraging these technologies and it’s not just based on what large vendors are providing. Having said that, deploying new services within the open source community is very competitive and operators may feel competitively constrained within these confines.

To overcome this competitive hurdle, operators need to start adopting agile and service-aware software to allow for new services and compete with web-based companies also targeting the sector. With this in mind, open source software will require the specific solutions vendor to provide end-to-end quality-of-service (QoS) and to also interwork the network’s most critical functions. Alongside this, operators must also adopt SCTP and GTP protocols that can provide a reliable QoS for the end-user with regards to network connectivity. Additionally, new open source companies need the financial capability to transform the market. Which begs the question: is open source software truly free?

A thriving open source community requires an investment of both time and money to maintain the software sufficiently. Typically, investment of time comes in the form of community membership, put simply, subscribers. Subscribers can contribute in numerous ways. Whether this is delivering technical support, writing reviews, providing code, improvements to fix bugs, the time invested can be viewed as a form of currency itself. By utilising tools that others in the community have developed for free, members can overcome common constraints and save time and ultimately garner a return on investment. However, open source does not imply free of charge. Yes, open source may have changed the way in which many of us think about software and operating systems, but there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Although open source applications have become more readily available and widely used, OpenOffice and the Linux kernel are just two examples, the majority of applications can’t be relied upon to perform critical tasks. As such, there is no guarantee of quality and/or security when it comes to so called ‘free’ applications in the open source space and most require paid subscription for access to updates and support services. For example, Red Hat Linux users must pay for support, or instead opt for Fedora and rely on support from the community.

So what are the positives from this new world of ‘free’ software? It’s clear the big enterprises, which have been leading the way and dominating for years, now have less of a monopoly on the industry. They are now faced with the challenge of having to adapt their systems to keep up with end-user demand or risk falling behind more technologically advanced ‘cloud native’ competitors, who are threatening to leave them in their wake. These younger creative companies, with a more entrepreneurial outlook, are beginning to leverage open source technologies and put end-user satisfaction and reliability at the forefront.

However, if such companies are to truly reap the rewards, they must consider the underlying protocols they adopt. For example, the lksctp provided as part of the Open Source Linux kernel may seem like the more convenient and economical solution but it cannot keep up with the multitude of connections and constant user activity in today’s advanced networks. They need SCTP and GTP protocols in place that work alongside each other to ensure reliability is not compromised for the end-user.

The key barriers to operator adoption of open source solutions

Accountability and reliability in the open source space are still very much in their infancy though it will certainly be an evolutionary process over the next few years. And indeed, the tolerances of who is responsible for accountability and who is responsible for reliability are two separate concerns at this moment in time.

While it’s clear vendors can leverage and contribute to open source communities through integrating platform capabilities into their products and services, accelerating open source solutions, how they are maintained and developed remain less so. Open sourcing their networks may seem like the new, innovative step for operators to take, but until all creases are ironed out, it seems unlikely that open source solutions will be taking the high ground in the telecoms industry anytime soon.